In the section on the meeting with the goddess in Joseph Campbell’s book on the Hero’s Journey, he briefly mentions the goddess as representing material existence, including the body. In a footnote, he points out that monotheistic religions look down on the body and elevate the spirit. He doesn’t, though, develop this idea fully until the next section, which discusses the temptress. The realization that bliss exists beyond the material world, represented by the beautiful woman in myths, causes some of us to recoil from our material existence. Instead of appearing as a virtuous woman, she appears as a temptress.
The Puritanical View
The story examples Campbell gives in this section should strike the modern reader as ridiculous. St. Peter, for instance, makes his daughter/ward sick because she’s too beautiful (except when he shows off to his pals and makes her well again so that she can serve them) and only cures her when “she had begun to be perfect in her love of God.” When a woman enters his bed, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux yells “Thief!” because she was trying to steal his virginity.
He describes this aversion to the tempting woman this way:
But when it suddenly dawns on us, or is forced to our attention, that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, the pure, pure soul.
Campbell describes this worldview as belonging to a “monastic-puritanical, world-negating ethical system.” He grew up as a Catholic and knew well this point of view on the body. He also, incidentally, mentions this belief in the eyes of Hindu monks.
This reflects the aversion to the material world and particularly our bodies that’s so familiar to those of us who grew up in such cultures. Getting over that aversion has been part of modern Western culture for a while. Nudity, particularly of women, gets stuffed in our faces by the media ad nauseum, but there are more serious efforts to break the link between the material world and evil (Neo-Paganism, for instance).
But, Don’t Get Sucked In
As “world-negating” as this aversion to the material world and the body is, the temptress represents the temptation of the physical world to lure the hero away from his spiritual purpose of enlightenment. The pleasures of material prosperity can be very tempting! This aversion to the temptress, however, isn’t the way to enlightenment because she is also part of life.
Recall that the beautiful woman/goddess has a dual nature, symbol of both joy and suffering. Being worthy of the goddess means learning to accept both as experiences of equal value. So, the temptation to get off track, which eventually causes us suffering, needs to be accepted on par with the potential for the bliss of enlightenment. At best, we can view rejecting the temptress as a warning not to let ourselves get too absorbed in the material world around us so that we abandon the difficult journey towards enlightenment.
So perhaps as a goddess, the woman represents knowledge beyond what we can imagine, including forbidden or dark knowledge (destructive or ugly), while as a temptress, she represents the limitations of knowledge (the material world and our sensual experience of it). The question seems to come down to who rules: us or the temptress. If we do then we’re capable of moving beyond the physical world; if we succumb to the temptress then we’ve succumbed to the material world and can’t move beyond it to the spiritual.
All of this seems to take the Hero’s Journey out of the practical. However, if we see the journey as representing goals or change, we can see the temptress as the danger in getting sucked back into a place of comfort, whether it be the one we left when we started the journey or a new one. The temptation to go back to an abuser or give up on a college degree takes us back to where we started. Alternatively, beginning a new relationship with yet another abuser or taking a new job in an unsatisfactory profession looks like change, but in reality such choices also get us back to where we started. Both types of choices make us feel safe, and that’s the temptation we must resist when we make changes.
Knowledge doesn’t always bring comfort. It opens our eyes to possibilities we didn’t see before, and during that crucial time between recognizing those possibilities and fulfilling them, we’re in the most danger of retreating. This, however, is as much a part of knowledge as the comfort we gain from seeing beyond the prison we knew before and realizing that greater joy is possible.